Monday, October 5, 2015

As IS terror grows, Russia bombs Syrian targets; the world is changing -- at India's doorsteps

When 10 million Bangladeshis poured into India to escape from the brutalities of Pakistan's army, war followed. When 12 million Syrians were uprooted and 4 million of them fled across unwelcome borders to get into Europe, a good number perishing in the seas on the way, no liberation war broke out because too many players were working at cross purposes. But with the rise and rise of the Islamic State, its barbarous beheadings and proclaimed goal of conquering the globe, the dynamics are changing. Last week Russia began aerial bombardment of Syrian targets, its first military intervention outside the old Soviet territory in 35 years. Earlier, to underline the importance of Russia's new putsch, Vladimir Putin addressed the UN for the first time in a decade and asked for a UN-backed coalition to fight IS terror. The world is changing. Where does India stand in this shifting scenario?

President Bashar Al-Assad, Syria's ruthless dictator, would have been thrown out along with Egypt's Mubarak and Libya's Gaddafi when Arab masses rose against their tyrants in 2011. But he survived because Iran backed him. Because Shiite Iran backed him, Sunni Saudi Arabia opposed him. Because Saudis opposed him, America opposed him. Because America opposed him, Russia backed him. Because the people opposed all of them, the IS gained strength.

The growth of Taliban and then of the IS was the direct consequence of flawed US policies. Never able to grasp the nuances of local forces at play, America helped build up Osama bin Laden himself in its anxiety to drive the Russians out of Afghanistan. That short-term goal was achieved, but the price paid was horrendous as the collapse of New York's twin towers showed.

Learning nothing, the erratic George Bush launched the Iraq war on false pretences. Again the immediate aims were met -- US oil companies got control of Iraqi oil and Saddam Hussain was disposed of. But at what cost? Today Iraqi oil is the main income source of IS, fetching $ 8 to 10 million a month. More ominously, terrorism has grown as an ideology, making it a religious duty for many. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani put it best when he told the UN that America's two wars in the region gave "terrorists an excuse for the justification of their crimes".

Rouhani played a part in preparing the region for change. He recalibrated Iran's civil nuclear programme and thereby won the support of Barack Obama who was till then the main campaigner for sanctions against Iran. Obama began negotiations with Iran despite open opposition from long-term ally, Saudi Arabia. After that, it was not too difficult for America to realise that perhaps Iran's stand on Syria was also worth a second look.

Two factors helped change the US position. First, it was clear that even as Iran supported Assad, it had worked out plans to hold territory and influence events if Assad fell. In other words, Iran's support to Assad was tactical, not ideological. Russia's approach was the same -- that getting rid of Assad could wait because getting rid of IS terrorism was the first priority. Secondly, US policies were not producing the desired results. In fact they were counterproductive. A $ 500 million programme to train and equip rebels against Assad got stuck because many of the rebels passed on US supplied tanks and weapons to IS in return for safe passage out of the war zone.

Against this context Russia's military move appeared brilliantly timed and politically astute. Two years ago Obama was so antagonistic to Russia that he cancelled a meeting with Putin saying that there was nothing to discuss. In UN last week, he talked with Putin at length. Putin followed up quickly by ordering aerial bombardment of Syrian targets. Russian ground troops have reached Syria and an airbase has been set up.

Russia strengthened its political stand by declaring that its primary aim was to block IS fundamentalists. No one dared oppose this position since many Muslim countries themselves have been shaken by the extremism of the IS. Putin's intervention was successful enough to make the US concede that perhaps Assad could be allowed to stay on as an interim measure while the IS threat was tackled as the immediate priority.

Russia's entry has made Syria the focus of big power attention. China has stepped in, too, sending aerial equipment in support of Russia's air fleet. A Chinese naval vessel has also entered Syrian waters.

Where does India stand in this shifting scenario?

Monday, September 28, 2015

Overkill will only fetch sympathy for dynasty; pettiness in politics is counter-productive

A. Surya Prakash showed how to do it, today's culture vultures are showing how not to do it. In a well-researched analysis in 2009, Surya Prakash told us how at least 450 government programmes involving public expenditure of lakhs of crores of rupees had been named after Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi, dragging in Jawaharlal Nehru, too, for good measure.

Consider just a few of the projects he listed and we can see the enormity of what was going on. The Rajiv Gandhi Vidyutikaran Yojana (rural electrification programme) involving Rs 28,000 crore; the Rajiv Gandhi Drinking Water Mission with even higher allocation per annum; the Indira Awas Yojana to house the poor with allocations of Rs 7000-10,000 crore per year; the Indira Gandhi National Old Age Pension Scheme. Plus, the Rajiv Gandhi Breakfast Scheme in Pondicherry, the Indira Gandhi Calf-Rearing Scheme in Andhra Pradesh, the Indira Gandhi Priyadarshini Vivah Shagun Yojana in Haryana, not to mention national parks, universities, airports, power projects and metro stations all named after the family. The idea was clear -- to let the people know that their drinking water, their old-age pension, their breakfast and their electricity were all by courtesy of Indira, Rajiv and to a lesser extent Jawaharlal Nehru.

This was a crude approach that actually worked against the Gandhi family in public relations terms. Although sycophants -- and that included the entire Congress establishment -- kept up a chorus about the family's mass appeal, the silent majority resented family rule distorting democracy. The proprietory style in which Indira and Rajiv treated India eventually worked against them. It is no secret that popular disgust with the dynastic system was a major factor behind the BJP's landslide victory last year.

The BJP's supporters should have left the dynasty -- and the Congress -- to stew in their own juice. Unable to rise to any level of credibility, Rahul Gandhi would have presided over the liquidation of his dynastic empire. But the Sangh parivar showed neither the political wisdom nor the tactical sense to let that happen. Instead, in a show of overkill, it began taking Nehru out of the Nehru Library and withdrawing postage stamps featuring Indira and Rajiv. This is a crude display of pettiness that could well bring a sympathy wave in favour of the Gandhis.

The problem with fringe fanatics (in any party) is that they see the world in stark shades of black and white. The different greys in between are what life -- and politics -- is all about. The fringe fanatics miss this and end up scoring self-goals. It is a mistake, for example, to tar Jawaharlal Nehru with the same brush used to tar Indira and Rajiv. Nehru made some grave mistakes -- Kashmir, China border -- but no one can deny the historic fact that he played a central role in laying the foundations of modern India. Nothing is lost by leaving the Nehru Museum and Library undisturbed, just as the Kennedy Library or the Clinton Library are left alone. Let them create other libraries to celebrate other heroes, as mature societies do. Nehru is too big to be erased by a junior culture minister beholden to lesser gods.

In the short term, Nehru may lose because the moment belongs to those who would abridge India rather than let it grow robustly in a robustly growing world. Culture Minister Mahesh Sharma left nothing to the imagination when he recently said: "We will cleanse every area of public discourse that has been westernised and where Indian culture and civilisation need to be restored... We have 39 institutions under the Culture Ministry, including grand museums and the National School of Drama... We will totally revamp all these institutions".

It's power, not knowledge, that make these men talk so authoritatively about what they do not know. They do not know that Indian culture and civilisation achieved greatness by absorbing the best in others. Narrow-minded definitions were unknown to the Indian cultural tradition -- until they became the political ammunition of a politically motivated movement. What is there for Sharma to "cleanse" in the National School of Drama where Ebrahim Alkazi, an Arab Indian, achieved magic by staging Andha Yug, among other classics. Alkazi did more to sustain Indian culture than the self-appointed culture guardians who are busy burning books and shooting independent thinkers. Dreams take years to build -- and only days to destroy. The consolation is that Indian civilisation is too great to be destroyed by passing philistines.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Whereas all things belong to MPs, MLAs and MLCs, now therefore, we must take them as our kings

WHEREAS the Government of Karnataka has circulated a draft bill allegedly to remove the colonial-era dress code of pants and shoes in private clubs,

AND WHEREAS the colonial rule is unpopular with Indians in general and the Tamil Nadu Government handled it in a mature manner by simply banning the ban on veshti/dhoti,

AND WHEREAS the Karnataka Government is using the veshti ban as an excuse to pursue ulterior motives, namely to turn the said clubs into playthings of politicians and their hangers-on,

NOW, THEREFORE, in order to let the people know of politicians' plans to appropriate private clubs to themselves, and to warn them that this is the first of several appropriation moves that will follow if people are not alert against the new dhoti politics, let it be known that the real bill the State Government wishes to pass in the sixty-sixth year of the Republic of India is as follows:

1.Short title. (1) This Act may be called The Karnataka Belongs to Politicians (Removal of All Restrictions and Conferment of All Rights to Go Anywhere and Demand Anything) Act 2015. (2) It shall come into force with retrospective effect from August 15, 1947. More important, it shall never expire.

2.Definitions. In this Act, unless the state decrees otherwise, some old definitions shall be changed in order to preserve our culture, custom and heritage. Accordingly,

(a)'Government' shall mean the repository of all wisdom, not subject to questioning by anyone under the Sun.
(b)'Public Places' shall mean and include any place the political leaders of the land wish to occupy, not excluding clubs, parks, lakes, public roads, private homes, kitchens and bathrooms, whether incorporated or not.
(c)'People' shall henceforth mean those with the right to rule and to whom everything belongs. Those who were hitherto known as people, such as tax payers and voters, shall henceforth be known as Census Digits.

3.Removal of restriction of entry. This clause is retained as in the original bill because it was the crux of the whole matter, namely that no person wearing a veshti (dhoti) reflecting Kannada culture shall be denied entry into any public space.

4.Allotment of membership to privileged persons. (1) In so far as the veshti clause has won the approval of all patriotic persons, the bill can now proceed to its real intent and purpose which is that under this Act, no membership shall be denied to MPs, MLAs, MLCs or to persons with meritorious contributions such as IAS and KAS luminaries, police officers and police drivers who beat up club security guards who ask for their car pass. The rights of these meritorious "people" shall prevail over perceived rights of Census Digits. (2) No club shall issue any circular, instruction or guideline so as to prescribe unreasonable membership fee on "people", anything above one rupee per annum being defined as unreasonable.

5.Public places other than Clubs. Since the Government considers it but fair that the rules and regulations applicable to private clubs should not be denied to private hotels and restaurants, all five-star establishments are required under this Act to make rooms and dining table reservations available on demand to MPs, MLAs, MLCs and the luminaries, officers and drivers mentioned in Clause 4 above. No unreasonable fee shall be levied for this service, anything above one rupee for a hotel room and five rupees for a five-course dinner with French wine being considered unreasonable for purposes of law.

6.Abolition of Private Places. Notwithstanding any rule or bylaw of welfare associations, MPs, MLAs, MLCs, the luminaries and drivers mentioned in Clauses 4 and 5 above shall have the absolute right to make use of the gym, swimming pool and other facilities of any housing welfare association in the state, without paying membership or usage fee. Residents who pay maintenance charges should consider it a privilege to have MPs, MLAs, MLCs, IAS-IPS officers and their drivers as freeloading guests in their private premises.

STATEMENT OF OBJECTS AND REASONS. It has been the noble tradition of India to be ruled by kings and nawabs. Under democracy, modern kings and nawabs are known as MPs, MLAs, MLCs, IAS-IPS officers and their honourable drivers. It is the privilege of Census Digits to surrender all they have to the aforementioned kings and nawabs. This way our state's progress will be guaranteed, the shameful power cuts will end, Bengaluru's potholes will be reduced from three million to one million and not a drop of Cauvery water will have to go to Tamil Nadu. Cheers!

Monday, September 14, 2015

Indian classics born again. It also reminds us of the lack of excellence in our campuses

Indian classical poetry ranks among the best that mankind has produced. As symbolic of a civilisational pinnacle, Kalidasa has only Dante coming near him. If we do not hear Allana Peddana's name in this context, it is because there has been no translation of this Telugu classicist in any language. Now an English translation has appeared bearing the imprint of the Murty Classical Library of India, Harvard University Press.

What is particularly charming about Peddana is his adherence to the accepted norms of the time (around 1520). While his stylistic splendour -- of which little seems lost in translation -- puts him in a class of his own, his focus is on the gods and the king. Krishnadevaraya, king of the imperial state of Vijayanagara, was a writer himself. So the chemistry between the patron and the poet was particularly productive.

Peddana's Manucharitramu (The Story of Manu) opens with praise to the gods, each stanza asking Shiva, Brahma, Lakshmi, Saraswati to "give Krishnaraya, our king, all the good things he wants". Then he pays homage to good poets, mentioned by name, and attacks bad poets, mercifully unnamed. The attack itself is merciless:

A rogue poet, for want of any other means
to feed his family,
Steals, in desperation, from the vast forest of
palm-leaf manuscripts,
But scholars catch him at it, his poetry
loses its charm,
and he is put in the stocks under the
gaze of the king.

Peddanna also described, with poetic effect, how the king commissioned him to do the work. "They say", he quotes the king as saying, "that out of the seven kinds of children a person might have, the only one that lasts is a poem". So he proceeds to create that child, each chapter beginning with accolades to the king and ending with the author's signature statement: "The great poem called The Birth of Svarochisha Manu was written by Allasani Cokkayamatya's son Peddanarya, known to all as the 'Creator God of Telugu Poetry'...." What self-confidence! What conviction in the worth of one's own creation! It looks like he was stating an accepted fact, for no one challenged him.

It is only when we actually delve into books like this that we realise the grand concept behind the Murty Classical Library of India (MCLI) and the intellectual rigour with which scholarship is employed to give it shape. Anand Mahindra donated $10 million to Harvard and Ratan Tata $ 50 million, the largest ever contribution in Harvard's history. By comparison, Rohan Murty's donation was a paltry $ 5.1 million. But the conceptualisation behind it made it spectacularly rich.

Mahindra's funding went to the University's Humanities Centre, facilitating its seminars, conferences and other academic pursuits. Tata's money was used to build new offices and residential quarters for the Harvard Business Centre. But the Murty donation ensured Harvard's involvement in bringing India's ancient literary treasure house to the attention of the world, a gain for India as well as a gain for Harvard.

The meticulousness with which the planning is done -- contentwise and designwise -- is truly impressive. Every work is a fresh translation, commissioned specially for the series. The type fonts are also specially created to ensure neatness and readability. There are Murty Hindi typeface, Murty Gurmukhi, Murty Telugu. We are told that these newly developed fonts will be made available to the public for non-commercial use.

The scholarship assembled for the series is notable too. We can see that there are dedicated scholars, sitting in their university research rooms, pouring over rare texts and acquiring expertise to translate from Pali and Punjabi and Telugu into English, their umbrella being a university designation, such as Lecturer in Buddhist Literature, or Professor of the Practice of Persian and Other Near Eastern Languages. We feel sad that there is no university in India that provides the environment for such scholarship to flourish. Occasionally a D.D. Kosambi would rise, but on the strength of his own intellectual prowess; his uniqueness, too, was utilised by Harvard in its Oriental Series.

India may not become nourishing ground for academic excellence in the foreseeable future if state interference in the IITs and IIMs -- to say nothing of the universities -- is any indication; we are going from strength to weakness. This makes initiatives like the Murty-Harvard partnership doubly welcome. Five volumes are out, five more will come out next year. That will be just the beginning. Before us is the grand vision of 500 volumes in 100 years. Bring them on.

Monday, September 7, 2015

As parties plunder by turn, people's only choice is negative voting. That doesn't seem to work

It has the appearance of a planned conspiracy. A party gets power, indulges in abominable corruption and misdeeds and is then thrown out by disgusted voters. But the next party that comes to power proves just as abominable, so voters throw it out, letting the earlier party come back to power. Thus voters end up as fools while all parties get a chance to plunder the country by turn.

Indira Gandhi's Emergency atrocities angered the people so much that they did the unthinkable: Threw out Indira herself and her despised son Sanjay. With great hope, people welcomed the Morarji Desai government. But it took only weeks for that government to show that it was a bunch of quarelling egoists. The odious lot was thrown out and Indira Gandhi returned to power.

In the last election, although Narendra Modi's oratorical magic played a significant role, it was people's disgust with Sonia Gandhi and her now-you-see-him-now-you-don't Prince of Wales that gave the BJP a landslide victory. A re-programmed Rahul Gandhi still does not strike anyone as a credible national leader. As long as he remains the alternative, Modi will be safe in his chair.

At the states level, Kerala and Karnataka are the classic examples of negative voting -- people anxious to throw out sinful incumbents. The practice actually originated in Kerala. The Congress-led United Democratic front and the Marxist-led Left Democratic Front perfected the art of competitive corruption. People responded the only way they could: With clockwise precision, they would throw out one obnoxiously corrupt Front and, five years later, throw out the other equally obnoxious Front.

There is a possibility that the tradition may be broken next time around -- and not because the UDF now in power is any less obnoxious in its ways. So numerous are the scams it has spawned that a competition seems to be under way to decide which ministry is the most fetid den of iniquity -- Finance, Excise, Industries, Revenue? Voters would as usual want to get rid of the lot. But, for the first time, the nightmare of the alternative seems more scary than the nightmare of the incumbent.

The CPM's state supremo, Pinarayi Vijayan, has been making policy mistakes over the years. He drove out the RSP, an important component of the LDF, used foul language in his speeches drawing criticism from his own followers and saw dissidents leaving the party, some even joining the BJP. In public perception the party is associated with the blood-curdling murder of a prominent dissident. Under Vijayan CPM in Kerala has become not only corruption-prone but also violence-prone and autocratic. The prospects of such an unpopular leader becoming the LDF chief minister will persuade many to vote against the LDF.

In Karnataka it was popular disgust with Congress misrule that made people welcome the untested H.D. Kumaraswamy of JD (S) and then B. S. Yeddyurappa of the BJP. The "first BJP government in the south" gave the party a historic opportunity. But they botched it up; BJP's first CM also became the first CM to be jailed with some of his cabinet colleagues for company. Negative voting came into play again and the Congress got another go at power.

Now it was the Congress's turn to botch things up again. Chief Minister Siddaramaiah, experienced and relatively clean, suffers from a reluctance to apply his mind to an issue on hand and act decisively. As a result, problems ranging from drought to the rise of moral-police thugs remain unresolved.

People expressed their mood in Bengaluru's corporation elections. During a longish rule, BJP corporators had set an unprecedented record in corruption which outweighed the lacklustre performance of the Siddaramaiah government. So voters gave the BJP 11 seats less than in 2010 while they gave the Congress 11 seats more, depriving both of a working majority -- a friendly warning to both parties.

But no self-respecting party pays heed to warnings, friendly or otherwise. As it happens, both the LDF in Kerala and the Congress in Karnataka have trump cards they can play to ensure victory in the next elections. Party prospects will dramatically change if the LDF officially projects V.S.Achuthanandan, the most popular living political leader in Kerala, as its chief ministerial candidate. In Karnataka, the Congress will immediately gain the upper hand if it announces that its choice of chief minister after the next election is Mallikarjun Kharge, a veteran respected by all. But where shall wisdom be found, and where is the place of understanding?